he toast to Touch Music’s silver anniversary begins with a complaint. Call it a pout. Most of the Touch 25 compilation’s liner notes lament the rise of digital music consumption that overthrew the “tactile dimensions” of vinyl and cassettes. The notes fear an epidemic of “brain damage” to come from the masses enjoying the glut of those cursed iPods, podcasts, and MP3 blogs. “The audience seems to be in control, probably in a honeymoon period that masks the deeper questions of infinite hard-disks, brain damage and Chinese firewalls. Will data be selectively removed?...History about to be rewritten? What will your brain feel like when you find it has disappeared?” The anonymous author then clears his or her throat and gives a brief mention to its actual compilation, which is “hopefully an enduring attempt towards building a more progressive relationship to the activity of listening and the idea of ‘awesome.’”
The humor is refreshing, but Touch’s 25-year history is absent from Touch 25’s liner notes. That’s a disservice. Label founders Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding were pioneers in 80s underground cassette culture when they released “cassette magazines” that compiled the likes of New Order, The Residents, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Cabaret Voltaire. It was not until the late 90’s when Touch truly began impacting the experimental music world at large, though. I first came across the label when my ears were seared by the microtonal blowouts of Fennesz’s +47° 56' 37" -16° 51' 08". That album insert’s lush calendar photographs of European pastures made the audio violence contained therein particularly unnerving.
The label’s releases possess a sublime sense of adventure and visceral might without attempting to articulate lofty concepts. That strength is heard in the hits of sunshine and white noise in Fennesz’s neo-shoegazer masterwork Venice, the ghosts that arise from the mechanical din of Philip Jeck’s turntables, and the raw earth symphonies of Chris Watson’s field recordings. The Touch label’s excursions in modern music typically draws one into a profound sense of otherness—a quality that makes Touch 25 one of this year’s more compelling compilations.
The 24 tracks are fittingly sequenced to drift through moments of the natural and the alien. You can hear cold microtones and hazy drones before jumping to the track of a train wailing along its route, or even a quiet moment’s rest of a fireplace’s ember snapping. But the record begins with 20 minutes of ethereal grace: BJ Nilsen’s recording of waves crashing against a Swedish island, Oren Ambarchi’s guitar drones sleepwalking on the frozen tundra, and Fennesz strumming under the Northern Lights. Elsewhere, there is a rather disturbing, close-up recording of a flushed toilet settling down and then leaking, the sounds of Peter “Pita” Rehberg pounding and twisting a metal wire into a mangled paperclip sculpture, and Pan Sonic taking a tour through an active power plant falling to pieces. Yet, not every track maintains the compilation’s energy and momentum: Rafael Toral’s “Glove Touch” is a whining drone piece, while the microtones in Jacob Kirkegaard’s “Heavy Water” float down a creek like poisoned fishes.
Touch 25’s heart is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s nine-minute masterwork, “Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai.” He leads a string ensemble to brilliantly recreate that time in the early morning where the sun begins to rise and makes the black sky fade into turquoise. There is hope, but dread remains: the strings hum, murmur, and then snarl, while rumbling electronic drones and growling bits of piercing distortion scar the air. The tension thickens when each minute passes; no climax or resolution follows. Philip Jeck’s sublime “Hindquarters” nearly shares the same evocative pull. He chases a ghostlike woodwind drone that arises from a disintegrating vinyl surface and then runs through a marketplace of rattling cymbals and cookware, only releasing an achingly sad, but delicately beautiful string melody when he meets his destination.
Despite the high drama and startling artistic statements of its releases, it’s pleasing to know that the Touch label does not take itself too seriously. Touch 25’s helium-filled liner notes about mass “brain damage,” and the label’s catalog of cell phone ringtones both attest to such campiness. However, at a moment when so many people deem electronic music to be useless without a dance beat and when ambient music is denounced as new-age fluff, much of Touch’s output still challenges imaginations to exercise well.
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-08-08